Many are endorsing Central park idea
District to poll public about latest proposal for a new high school site
CHAMPAIGN — Phil Van Ness was dead set against plans to build a new Central High School on 80 acres of farmland in northernmost Champaign.
Then the former Champaign school board member heard about an intriguing, new idea late Thursday — to rebuild the 79-year-old high school less than a mile from its longtime home, on property stretching from Spalding Park on the east, across Franklin Middle School and to Judah Christian School on the west.
If that option lands on the ballot come Nov. 4, Van Ness would vote an enthusiastic "yes."
"This idea solves a lot of problems," said Van Ness, who in the mid-2000s served on a different Champaign schools facility committee, one charged with solving many of the same problems as the current one.
"The site they were proposing on the north side was not convenient to anybody. Not only was it promoting urban sprawl, but it would be a real problem for the district to buy a boatload of buses to bring the students there.
"If you put Central where the middle school is now, you can kill two or three birds with one stone."
"You can use the existing infrastructure. You can improve the neighborhood, and children will actually be able to walk to school there. I see this as a really excellent choice if the school district were inclined to take it up."
School board President Laurie Bonnett and Unit 4 Superintendent Judy Wiegand both caution that talks with the Champaign Park District about the new Spalding Park site are very preliminary. But both say it's an idea worth exploring further, even as they proceed with the $3.2 purchase of the 80 acres of north Champaign farmland that the board selected as the site for a new Central in late January.
The district plans to conduct opinion polls and surveys of registered voters in the coming months, Wiegand said.
Ted Beach, a member of Champaign High's Class of 1947, has a feeling the sort of feedback they'll get.
"Most people I talk to think building a high school in north Champaign would be a long way out," he said. "You would almost have to change the name of the school by building it out there. I don't know if this new site would have enough space for what the high school needs, but I certainly would prefer this new location."
District parent Charles Schultz, who covers Unit 4 issues extensively on his "Citizen 4" blog, also prefers the Spalding site to the vacant plot on Neil Street extended, between Interstate and Olympia drives.
Schultz said that four of his blog readers said Thursday night they favor the new location, as well.
"The short answer is, yes, I would be more inclined to vote for it in the new location," he said. "However, that doesn't mean I am 100 percent in favor, yet.
"As a parent and somewhat in tune with what is going on, the most important thing to me is how academics are affected. Right now, I have not seen any plans to link a brand-new facility with high graduation rates. I am glad that the new location de-emphasizes athletics; I think that is very positive. But I still want to see what our plan is to address the achievement gap. I also want to see a financial plan that has us saving up for future costs."
Cost remains the great unknown, less than four months before the school board's deadline to pass a resolution to ask a ballot question of voters in November. Early estimates put construction of a new Central in the $80 million range.
What a building would cost on a smaller property like Spalding — 36.6 acres compared to the 80 the school board signed off on purchasing — is unknown.
Still, Tom Bruno said the new site "sounds appealing" while his fellow Champaign City Council member, Deborah Frank Feinen, likes the idea of a new Central being so close to the current Central.
"The city council, including me, is on record in favor of trying to find a central location for Central High School," Feinen said. "In theory, this is a more centrally located site, and would be a great location for people to walk and bike to. But I would want to know more about it. We want to work with the school district to keep Central centralized."
Savoy Mayor Robert McCleary said building Central south of Market Place Mall would be a "much better location" for young people in his village.
"The park district's site sounds like a better option to me," he said. "At first blush, it is a more 'central' area, and it would be more convenient for students coming from the south edge of the district, including Savoy. It sounds like a much better option than building north of Olympian Drive. But the devil's always in the details."
Champaign PTA Council President Anna Simon isn't so sure about the new proposal.
"I serve on the futures committee, and I cannot commend the board enough on how much time they spent looking at land for the new high school," she said. "I support whatever decision the school board made. It is the best decision for our kids. Since they said they needed 80 acres, I would be concerned if this is only 35 acres."
Unit 4 facilities committee member Joan Dykstra was also concerned about the park district site's smaller size — especially given that the district determined it needs 47.7 acres to build the new Central.
"I believe that all proposals should be looked at. If there is a proposal that is viable, we should look at every option," Dykstra said.
"My question would be about the amount of acreage involved, the cost of demolition and the preparation that would go into site development. Having it closer to central Champaign is certainly worth looking at.
"However, there are a lot of costs and long-term problems I can foresee associated with this site."
-- TIM MITCHELL
3 questions with Judy Wiegand
Given Thursday's developments, what are the odds that you will have the Central High/school facilities question on the ballot in November?
"I think it's really going to depend on the opinion polling. I'm not a betting person, but I would put more odds on the results of the opinion polling of registered voters regarding whether or not we go in November. The board's really going to take a look at that data and make a decision from it."
Is that something they've decided recently?
"They've always said we need to do more opinion polling. (Some was done last year with DeJong-Richter). ... Now that we have a high school site, we have to be more specific with our questions — as well as the (dollar) amount.
There's no sense going to the polls if you know your referendum is going to fail. It's get out there first with the registered voters and make a decision with that."
But are you still leaning toward November?
"Yes. Certainly, the objective is to get on the ballot for November. But one of the pieces of information the board wants to look at is the opinion polling of registered voters."
-- JULIE WURTH
Draft report of schools' 'master plan' on agenda
Monday night's Champaign school board agenda includes a report on the district's "Master Facility Plan."
Unit 4's Matt Foster, who will present the plan, described it Friday as an "informational report," one that was assembled by the DLR Group (architecture firm) using the best of several proposals discussed in recent months, with an emphasis on "educational equality" and "meeting enrollment needs."
The document is labeled "DRAFT" and will be discussed in open session Monday, with no board action taking place. District spokeswoman Stephanie Stuart described it as "a sort of road map" and said if ultimately approved, changes "would not happen at once" but over the next few to 20 years.
Added Foster: "This is how it could work."
The plan's highlights:
— Retire the Dr. Howard Elementary School building and rebuild it as a new, four-strand K-8 school at a new location.
— Retire the Edison Middle School building and rebuild at a different site in 2020.
— Demolish and retire the Mellon Administrative Building. District offices would relocate to the current Central High School, as would "TBD."
— Add to/renovate Jefferson Middle School (to accommodate 675 students), Franklin Middle School (also 675) and Centennial High School (1,700).